I started working in Washington, DC, 6 years ago, and I was tasked with the job of not only bringing World Relief’s position in support of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) to members of Congress but also educating the wider evangelical community on why immigration reform was needed in the first place. As the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), World Relief had a vibrant history of serving immigrants through our U.S. offices, and we were in a unique position to bring our voice to the evangelical church in the U.S. and to the U.S. government.
As I worked in Washington, DC, it was eye-opening to see that not everything you heard or read in the news was accurate. Back in 2006, everyone acknowledged that the immigration system was broken and needed to be fixed, and instead of divisiveness between the two political parties, I found that there was actually a growing consensus of what should be done. Democrats and Republicans came together to introduce legislation that would bolster border security, expand visas, and provide some pathway for earned legalization. Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ) worked together from 2005-2007 to introduce bills that were bipartisan in nature and offered good policies to get a dysfunctional immigration system back on track.
This spirit of bipartisanship though has dissipated in Congress. With the approval rating of Congress at an all time low of 13% in an election year, there should be ample concern over whether any major issue, including immigration, can be seriously debated and acted upon by Congress. This lack of bipartisanship led Senator Snowe (a moderate Republican) to not pursue reelection this year, citing “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’” as a reason for her leaving. Senator Lugar, one of the moderate Republicans in the Senate who voted for the DREAM Act in December 2010, lost his primary election to a Tea Party candidate, who skewered him on his positions on immigration among other things. In the House, Rep. Heath Shuler (a moderate Democrat) is retiring saying “it’s very difficult for a moderate to be able to gain momentum”, while Rep. Steve LaTourette (a Republican from Ohio) said that “things we used to do all the time a no-brainer way, we can’t get done.”
This dissatisfaction with Congress has not meant that young evangelicals are sitting on the sidelines while the political process plays out. In fact, young evangelicals will shape the 2012 elections, but not in the way their parents did. In a recent poll by Sojourners, they tested the attitudes of young evangelicals on a variety of issues. What they found is that while young evangelicals continue to care about abortion and same sex marriage, their interests are expanding to a more diverse set of issues. Also, the majority thought that it is important for Christians to vote, volunteer for charities and advocate for better laws. In addition to caring about the economy and national security, 40% said they ranked social issues as one of their top two priorities. Immigration and the environment were the top political priorities for 8% and 6% of young evangelicals respectively. This may seem like a low number but demonstrates a growing concern for a variety of issues alongside the traditional concern for abortion and same-sex marriage.
This poll also found that young evangelicals are particularly active in civic affairs. About 77% had used social media to advocate for a cause while 71% had signed an online petition. Many, at 40%, also participated in more traditional means of advocacy, including writing a letter or email to Congress. Most, at 89%, had prayed for an elected official. The active engagement of young evangelicals in politics means that these young adults view civic engagement not just as a means to get heard but also as a responsibility to exercise their influence for the common good.
At a press conference in Washington, DC on October 16th releasing the results of the poll, I spoke about how this polling is reflective of what I found as I travel throughout the U.S. I find in many of these young evangelicals a thirst for justice and compassion that plays out in their service of others but also their activism and political engagement. Young evangelicals are not only welcoming immigrants by teaching English, becoming their friends, and volunteering at local immigrant ministries, but they are also advocating for better laws. While they still care about the issues their parents do, this young generation is motivated by social justice and seeks God’s compassion in our laws and practices. This is certainly true for me, and for the many I met throughout the United States.
The civic engagement of young evangelicals and their passion for social justice crystallized for me when I visited Cedarville University, in Cedarville, OH, last year. In a conservative Christian college, they hosted the first ever G92 conference, which drew over 1,000 attendees from over 20 diverse institutions to talk about immigration. In what could be considered a “controversial” issue, these students listened patiently, probed the many speakers, and created an immigration action club on campus. The G92 movement is spreading to many other Christian campuses across the country. These young people are bringing their understanding of social media to spread their message, and this campus activism has spread far and wide into the deepest corners of the evangelical community.
The Sojourners poll also found that Democratic and Republican parties both espouse positions which conflict with the faith of young evangelicals. During the 2012 elections, these young evangelicals will be presented with a choice between Governor Romney and President Obama. Governor Romney, during recent appearances, reiterated his support for a “permanent solution” for immigrants, although when pressed, did not provide further details on what this would entail. This seems to be a step forward from his policies during the primaries in which he advocated for “self deportation” of undocumented immigrants and the building of a complete wall along the border with Mexico. Governor Romney also had said that the Arizona law S.B.1070 was a model for the nation, even though many evangelical leaders expressed concerns about the bill, and he has backtracked on that position in recent months. Governor Romney has supported more robust visas for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates and a reduction in waiting times for families.
President Obama, meanwhile, has deported a record number of immigrants in the past year. He promised that he would tackle immigration his first year in office but focused his efforts on health care reform. President Obama did, however, make two major Administrative decisions that would benefit immigrants. First, the Administration announced that it would re-prioritize enforcement to focus on those who were criminals in June 2011. This would ensure that our government’s limited resources are focused on removing the most dangerous criminal immigrants. Second, the Administration announced in June 2012 that immigrant youth who meet certain criteria would be eligible for deferred action. This meant many DREAMers, or youth who came to the United States at a young age without documentation, would be eligible to remain in the United States and continue their education. There is a difference on immigration between the two candidates, and both are not without criticism. The next few Presidential debates may provide an opportunity for each candidate to clarify their positions on immigration and express commitment to immigration reform.
Statements from both candidates and both political parties are not just pronouncements of ideas but demonstrate the principles that will guide each party’s actions on any issue. For me, immigration will be one of the top two issues I will vote on this election. While I am just one example of a young evangelical who cares about more than just the economy and national security (although immigration is related to both), I believe I am representative of a growing number of young evangelicals who are looking for their political leaders to lead and act on addressing some of the pressing social issues of our time.
The full report of the Sojourners poll can be found here.
Jenny Yang is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).
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